Our plane was descending slowly. From the window, we could see overlay yellow lights like sparkling stars in the dark night. Meanwhile, the pilot instructed all passengers to fasten their seatbelts and move their seats into an upright position. Our hearts beat faster and faster. We could not wait to begin our short trip to a country to which we had long been looking forward: Morocco.
Unlike our previous journeys, this trip was slightly different. It was our first time visiting Africa; moreover, we were observing the fasting of Ramadan. These conditions cultivate their own enthusiasm. We hope to learn something new not only about the country, but also the way Ramadan is observed here.
Sure enough, similar to any Muslim-majority countries, at night we could see how mosques are packed with worshippers undertaking Tarawih prayers. Several empty shops are transformed into mosques to accommodate the rising number of worshippers. The Qur'an was being recited so loudly we could hear them from the markets across from the Koutoubia mosque. When the sunset comes, several mosques offer free Iftar (breaking the fast) and many observers rush to gather as soon as Athan (call for prayer) is called.
Marrakech was the first city we visited. It is arguably a very tolerant city. It is seen in how the food shops remain open in congested tourist areas, such as Jame el Fana Square and the old markets. In residential areas, however, many restaurants were closed during the day. They do so to respect most residents who observe the fast.
The people are very cordial in welcoming guests to their country. Their hospitality was reflected when we were in Jame el Fana looking for somewhere to break our fast. Different shopkeepers took turns smiling at us while offering breakfast in their shops. Some were offering free dates, snacks, and drinks.
Closing mosques: A strange way to eradicate extremism
Undeniably, Morocco is a country whose politics are relatively stable in the region. But this is not taken for granted. The government in Rabat is very serious about tackling the seeds of extremism before they grow.
One unique way is to limit the mosques' hours of operation. Mosques across the country should be opened only during the five times of congregational obligatory prayers. As soon as the congregation prayers are finished, the worshippers are asked to leave the mosque immediately, let alone holding discussions or study circles. This differs from some other Middle East countries where mosques are often used as a place in which to rest or hold Islamic lectures.
Even though some believe such methods are effective in tackling extremism, it has been a subject of debate by several parties for some time. In addition to closing mosques, the Moroccan Ministry is pursuing other measures. Building new mosques requires a government permit, and the Ministry should intervene in choosing their names. Regardless of the party supervising the construction, written approval must first be granted by the Ministry. Furthermore, a permit must be approved for holding prayers in any place, even if it is not a mosque.
Learning tolerance from the Berber
In the midst of the tolerance we witnessed in the streets of Marrakech, we also heard stories about intolerance towards non-fasters. It was reported that many people have been arrested since the start of Ramadan for eating or smoking in public.
On the same day we heard the news, we left the busy streets of Marrakech for the Sahara Desert in the south of the country. The mountainous wild flowers, typical of the region, adorn the slopes of the Atlas Mountains with variety of colours, a crystal clear river flowing quietly at the foot of the mountain, and a gust of fresh wind that found its way through the bus windows, helped us find relief from the overloaded streets. We also felt a sense of peace after hearing the troubling news of intolerance.
But we felt more peace when we arrived and were greeted by children from the Berber tribes. They greeted us with wide smiles and typical North African Arabic dialect. Among them already lined up were some camels ready to carry us across the desert. The camels were guided by several adult men dressed in typical Berber attire. They pulled our camels carefully and slowly. We were calmed by their hospitable attitude towards us.
Our camels stopped suddenly just as the sun was about to set. Abdul, one of those who helped pull our camels, hinted the rest. It turned out they were about to break their fast. As they knew we were Muslims, they asked us to join them. But what was more fascinating, they asked other visitors who were of different faiths to sit together as well. They offered us dates and asked us to drink from their jugs. We were amazed by how these uneducated people knew how to deal with those who are different from them; better than some educated people we had encountered. Even more fascinating is how the Berbers were able to explain Ramadan and Islam to non-Muslim visitors through their broken French and English, and answered various questions that were posed.
These not only relieved us from the news that we heard back in the city, but also taught us an important lesson about how to treat those who are different from us. Actually, arrests of non-fasters have been making headlines, prompting a debate about the controversial issue that returns to the spotlight during every Ramadan in Morocco. What is perplexing is that most such incidents involve educated people in the cities.
Abdul's earthy face appeared to convey a message that a row of academic degrees or living modern life are no guarantee that people will tolerate those who are different, and to accept our differences and discover our similarities.
This piece is co-authored with Muhammad Beni Saputra, a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester.